Title: Assassination Games
Director: Ernie Barbarash
Starring: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Scott Adkins, Kevin Chapman, Ivan Kaye, Andrew French, Serban Celea, Michael Higgs, Kristopher Van Varenberg, Bianca Van Varenberg
If or when extraterrestrial aliens ever dissect the full and complete library of our entertainment options, they will surely be somewhat puzzled by our fixation, per capita, on lawyers, ER doctors and hitmen. Murder, of course, in theory represents the ultimate in dramatic stakes, but given the genre preoccupation with for-hire killings, one could be forgiven, from the outside looking in, for thinking this was a growth sector with no tangible ceiling. The latest movie to till this earth is Assassination Games, the first action entry from Jean-Claude Van Damme getting a bit of a Stateside theatrical shake in a while. It’s a credible enough genre entry that gives the “Muscles from Brussels” a nicer showcase than anything his erstwhile action-flick competitor, Steven Seagal, has had in recent memory, but it’s also a movie that drops the ball with respect to a lot of the conflicts that it sets up.
Vincent Brazil (Van Damme) is an aging, aloof contract killer who is willing to take any job if the price is right. His latest target is Polo Yakur (Ivan Kaye), a scummy mobster only recently released from prison. Things go sideways, however, when Roland Flint (Scott Adkins) accidentally foils Vincent’s hit, causing Polo’s brother to die but allowing for him to escape. Roland, a retired killer who long ago laid out Polo’s criminal syndicate but then suffered a horrible payback which left his wife Anna (Bianca Van Varenberg, Van Damme’s daughter) in a coma, has personal payback on his mind. The last loose thread in a weapons-trading and murder scheme that can implicate a European Union official and a couple dirty cops, Roland is actually the unwitting target of Vincent’s contract on Polo; they figure that his competitive juices will start to flow, and he’ll want to beat Vincent to the hit. When the two cross paths, however, they cautiously decide to team up to take down Polo. Will their partnership last, however, and is it even entirely sincere?
Basically a bureaucracy-bashing mash-up of Assassins and the Bourne flicks, Aaron Rahsaan Thomas’ script slips in a few sly metaphors (Vincent lives in a rundown neighborhood, and has a crap apartment with a secret passageway to a nicer interior chamber), but also checks all the sorts of boxes of character shorthand one has come to expect from films of this type. Is there a humanizing pet, or hobby for Vincent? Why, both (a turtle, and the violin)! And what about a cowed or abused woman he can save? Yep, in the form of a battered neighbor.
Director of photography Phil Parmet captures the proceedings in something leaning toward sepia tones; for no discernible reason, Assassination Games seems like it was shot through a dijon mustard-colored lens. The action, though, is for the most part nicely captured by director Ernie Barbarash, who doesn’t lean on spastic edits to try to create some hyper-kinetic tension. He trusts in his characters and the script’s scenarios, which is a refreshing change of pace from a lot of relatively low-budget action movies, in which the director is so eager to impress a visual palette on the movie that he goes overboard stylistically.
While there are some rough edges in other performances, Van Damme gives a credibly world-weary turn, and Andrew French also brings a smart sense of balanced practicality and cunning to his role of Vincent’s contact man, Nulbandian. If there’s a damning letdown, however, it’s that Assassination Games doesn’t fully exploit (in, say, the manner in which 2008’s JCVD, or even, for purposes of comparison, Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa did) the age and earned maturity of its leading man. In a world where the putative authority figures are every bit as dirty and crooked (if not even more so) than the criminals, it would be interesting to see Vincent and Roland connect on a deeper level, and recognize in one another a fellow kindred, honor-born soul. The movie flirts with this, but pulls back from a couple scenarios that could potentially flesh this out in truly interesting ways.
Written by: Brent Simon